How do you react when someone says, “This morning the Lord told me…”? If you’re like most people, you’re skeptical. Dallas Willard calls this the “UFO syndrome.” When someone claims that God spoke to them, most of us react like we would if they told us that a UFO landed in their back yard. Does God really speak to us? If so, how can we hear God’s voice?
God desires to speak to us
When the Bible talks about knowing God, it refers to a personal relationship, not merely knowing things about God. Eternal life means knowing God in a personal sense (Jn. 17:3). A personal relationship requires two-way communication. We speak to God, and God speaks to us. Hearing God’s voice is an essential part of being in relationship with him. Jesus said,
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20, ESV)
In first century Jewish culture, sharing a meal with someone, along with the conversation that took place during the meal, was an important part of relationships. What Jesus is saying in this verse is that he wants to have fellowship with us. For that to happen, we need to hear his voice and open the door to him.
This verse is often used in evangelistic contexts, yet this was written to the church (Rev. 3:14), not to non-Christians. This is an invitation to Christians to have intimate, personal fellowship with God.
One of the signs that we are God’s “sheep” is that we recognize his voice (Jn. 10:27). But it’s not always easy to know whether it is God who is speaking to us or whether it is our own thoughts and feelings. When young Samuel was in the temple, he heard a voice (1 Sam. 3:1-14). God was speaking to him, apparently in an audible voice. But at first, he thought that it was Eli calling for him. Only after Eli’s instruction did he realize that God was the one speaking to him.
How does God speak to us?
How do we hear God’s voice? There are two primary ways that God speaks to us.
We hear God’s voice through the Bible
God has spoken uniquely and authoritatively in his word, the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16-17, 2 Pet. 1:16-21). Jesus and the Apostles believed and taught that the very words of Scripture are God’s words. We need to carefully study the Bible to discover message that God has communicated through the human authors and determine how to apply it to our lives. This is vital to our Christian lives.
But while God’s revelation in Scripture is absolutely essential to our faith, it is not enough. The Bible provides principles for living, but it does not provide specific instructions for the decisions and actions that I must choose every day. The Bible does not tell me where to live, which job to take, or which ministries opportunities to pursue. For that, we need a more personal form of communication with God.
In devotional Bible reading, we look for what God is speaking to us personally through his word. What we hear from God in this way is not the same as the result of studying the Bible. For example, suppose you are thinking about going on a trip to see your relatives. You read in the Bible about the beginning of Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 15:36). You see that Paul was going on a trip and feel that God is telling you to take your trip. It is important that we understand what we are experiencing here:
- This is not the meaning of that passage
- This is not a legitimate application of that passage
- But this could be God speaking to your heart as you read his word
God often speaks to us in this sort of way. This is not a substitute for studying the Bible, which is essential. But we also need to listen for what God is saying to us personally when we read the Bible or do anything else. This is the second way we hear from God.
We hear God’s voice through our experience
How did the people we read about in the Bible hear God’s voice?
- How did Samuel know who to anoint as king in place of Saul (1 Sam. 16:1)?
- Why did Jonah decide to go on a mission trip to Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-2)?
- How did Philip know to go to a remote road to meet the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26)?
- How did Paul know to go to Macedonia on his mission trip (Acts 16:6-10)?
In each of these cases, God spoke in a direct, personal way. They had the words of Scripture which had been written up to their time, but that did not provide the specific guidance that they needed. They needed to hear God’s voice concerning their own situation.
Sometimes God has spoken in an audible voice, or in dreams and visions. But that is not the only way or the most common way that God speaks to us. Most often God speaks to us as a quiet whisper in our hearts (cf. 1 Kings 19:11-12). We need to learn to hear and recognize the voice of God.
God speaks to us in both our thoughts and our emotions. For some of us, the idea of listening to God through our feelings is a scary thought (a feeling!). But God speaks to us as whole persons, and that includes our emotions as well as our thoughts. We acknowledge that when we talk about God’s guidance by saying that we “have a burden” or “feel led” to do something. We are using the language of emotion, whether we realize it or not.
How to hear God’s voice
The most important thing to understand about hearing God’s voice is that it comes as part of a certain kind of life. Dallas Willard wrote,
Hearing God’s voice “is to be sought only as part of a certain kind of life, a life of loving fellowship with the King and with his other subjects” (Dallas Willard, Hearing God, emphasis his)
If we want to hear God’s voice regularly and clearly, we must cultivate the sort of inner life that makes it possible for us to hear what he is saying to us. Here are some of the key characteristics of that sort of life:
1. Love God
We can hear God’s voice only in the context of a loving relationship with him. Experiencing his love and loving him in return is the foundation of our spiritual lives. How can I grow in my love for God?
2. Have a heart shaped by God’s word
The condition of our hearts determines what we are able to hear. To hear God’s voice, our hearts need to be molded and shaped through regular reading, study, and meditation on Scripture. How can I allow God’s word to shape my heart?
3. Humble yourself before God
Nearly everyone who has written about hearing God’s voice over the last 2000 years has emphasized this point. To hear God’s voice, we need to be in a posture of humility, which is the opposite of self-promotion and self-centeredness. Where do I need to humble myself before God?
4. Pay attention
We can’t hear if we are not listening. We need to pay careful attention to what is happening in our thoughts and emotions and ask how God might be speaking to us. What are you saying to me today, Lord?
5. Exercise discernment
Not every thought or feeling is the voice of God. We must compare everything that we think God might be saying to us with the clear teaching of Scripture. Genuine experience of God will never contradict what God has revealed in the Bible. What does your word say about this, Lord?
Recommended books on hearing God’s voice:
Hearing God by Dallas Willard
The Voice of Jesus by Gordon T. Smith
You can view a sermon I shared recently on this topic on our church website.